On the Innovation of DC: Washington’s Witching Word in Century 21

Nigel M. de S. Cameron

Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies

Washington, DC

These past weeks, C-PET’s Network on Innovation has been hosting conversations at the fateful meeting-point of past and future – and the witching word of Century 21. The I-word. The word that, at the end of the day, will open or close America’s future.

Meantime, Washington has been both enthusing about it – and seeking perversely to slash federal R and D spending.

C-PET’s Roundtables bring together the best and the brightest. Last up: Mark Heeson (National Venture Capital Association), Julia Spicer (Mid-Atlantic Venture Association), Mike Roco (National Science Foundation), and Steve Burrill (Burrill Life Sciences): a brains trust if ever there was one. Its focus was specifically on Innovation and Risk, and it was co-hosted by the Intel-led Task Force on American Innovation. We followed it up with a teleconference with Norm Augustine, former chairman of Lockheed Martin as well as the lead author of Rising Above the Gathering Storm, the National Academies’ plea for America to get real about science, technology, the future – and jobs (read more on that plea here). The Roundtable panelists made it plain that venture funding, federal, and corporate R and D were all being squeezed. What’s more, venture is now following entrepreneurs round the world; American investment dollars have no necessary relation to American jobs. One panelist’s question is whether America wants to be a second- or third-tier nation. As on a previous occasion, the specter held out was that of Britain. The global superpower until a little over a half-century ago. But now? Well . . . .

While various views can legitimately be taken of the need to cut federal expenditures, Washington’s inability to distinguish investment focused on science and technology from other claims on the public purse is depressing. But let’s make a virtue of necessity (Chaucer’s version of a more recent DC formulation: a crisis is a terrible thing to waste).

While current year cuts would prove highly disruptive, the absolute sums involved are not the core question. There’s wide agreement that a range of strategic factors – like the remarkably high levels of U.S. corporate taxation and visa/immigration issues – are governors of our capacity to exercise technological leadership in the coming generation. And I have argued that we need to consider a series of shifts to get us on the path most of us want: such as ditching academic tenure (through an appropriations rider?) as way to open up convergent approaches to science and technology as well as undercutting the seniority machine; and throwing a big slice of our federal R and D spend (25% initially, off the top of every current budget?) to a new agency based in the Valley and run by entrepreneurs of appropriate age and experience. A modest proposal, or two, could reframe the discussion. That is; innovation is about thinking in innovative ways – in a political culture that shifts its policy focus but remains consensus-driven in its commitment to the short term and acceptance of truckloads of legacy institutional assumptions. While we could discuss whether it makes sense to maintain the agencies that were a good fit for the post-War world, my sense is that developing new institutional structures apt for tomorrow (like the Valley R and D Nexus) and siphoning resources into them offers the way ahead.

With a serious shot of high-caffeine imagination there are many innovative initiatives that could turn this tired and graying culture into a refurbished world-beater in the emerging world of new economies.

Yet the facts are sobering; not least, the factoids. Latest: South Korea plans to have 100% household broadband access by the end of next year; and – wait for it – the average speed of household access will be 200 times that of the average U.S. household. Pause for deep breaths. For those with short memories: in 1960, South Korea was behind the Democratic Republic of Congo in per capita GDP, and had little over half that of Zimbabwe; and the economy of North Korea was growing faster. The point of historical comparison is to underline the significance of trends, which produce massive reordering of the placement of nations. And, of course, to note – plaintively and persistently – the impact of compounding factors, chiefly Moore’s Law and (in respect of capital markets and entrepreneurial geography, especially) globalization. I was in elementary school in 1960, when Zimbabwe was riding high and South Korea being economically overhauled by the North. Our grandchildren will not need to wait around for 50 years so long to see our current set of tectonic shifts worked out. We are hand-over-fist unmaking our legacy for their world as we stop our ears and blind our eyes to every single trend out there.

But this nation was founded on innovative ideas. Many of the smartest and most visionary of humans ride the DC metro and clog the Beltway. Despite their long neglect of Washington, our most inventive corporations have begun to take more seriously its place as the switching point of the future of America, and they are now freshly alerted to the import of a body politic that seems not to grasp the distinction of investment and mere spend – and longer term as the only term that finally matters.

For at the heart this is all about mindset. Innovation as the word from the future, the elixir, the witching word. It’s why in this nation built on ideas we have to keep thinking about what it means and entails – which is what C-PET’s Network on Innovation is here to do.

As Alfred North Whitehead famously wrote: “Ideas won’t keep. Something must be done about them. When the idea is new, its custodians have fervor, live for it, and if need be, die for it.”

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